They say you can't judge a book by its cover, but you just might be able to judge a restaurant by its menu. I Fratellini's is a black leather folder embossed with a gilt "F" as lustrous as an illuminated letter on a Renaissance engraving. The folder has the convincing heft of a church missal. Inside, freshly printed pages slip neatly into corner slots. The dishes are unpretentiously listed in English, with their Italian names given in parentheses below each entry.
I Fratellini, like its menu, has a recherché elegance. The ornate "F" echoes the gold lettering on the glossy black façade of the restaurant's narrow storefront. Through the window, the tiny space glows red with the reflection of warming lights against the back wall. Three dramatic chandeliers resemble colossal nosegays of wildflowers dangling upside down to dry. Gold-and-crimson bordello-striped banquettes hem one long brick wall. A retail counter and refrigerated deli case stand before the opposite wall, and a small bar brings up the rear.
This configuration cannot easily accommodate a crowd. If ever a restaurant was unsuited to weekend dining, this must be it. I Fratellini does not take reservations -- a place that seats only 35 can neither afford no-shows nor risk overbooking. Customers hoping to score a table, though, are willing to wait. On a recent Friday evening, they shouldered into every available nook and pressed between the sepia marble tables. Their coats and purses jostled seated diners, and the noise level pitched up to a buoyant roar.
Is a meal here worth the hassle? We liked the place enough to visit a third time on our own dime. I Fratellini, which means "the little brothers," is named for owner Zoë Robinson's two sons. Robinson's first venture was Café Zoë, which closed its doors four years ago. In addition to the new I Fratellini, Robinson owns Zoë Pan-Asia Café, in the Central West End. Ny Vongsaly is the executive chef of both restaurants.
To prepare for the about-face from pan-Asian to Italian, Robinson traveled to Italy several times last year and worked with Vongsaly in a Tuscan trattoria for two weeks. The recipes they learned from chef Claudio became I Fratellini's first menu, composed of dishes from both the north and south of the country. The rustic food is similar to that of Trattoria Marcella, chef Steve Komorek's fine restaurant on Watson Road.
Antipasto, which means "before the meal," is a selection of foods served before the first course to stimulate the appetite -- the Italian equivalent of Russian zakuski and Spanish tapas. Our favorite item at the restaurant was an antipasto dish in which wide ribbons of eggplant were roasted, daubed with goat cheese and rolled into spools. The little packages were enveloped in a sweet marinara. Another roundly satisfying starter was leaf-thin slices of beef carpaccio scattered with shards of Parmigiano-Reggiano and blades of arugula. On two visits we ordered an antipasto of roasted red peppers, whole basil leaves and rounds of buffalo mozzarella. The ingredients were arranged in alternating bands of red, green and white. The flavor of the dish was as vibrant and direct as its presentation. We also shared a Florentine plate of bruschette, which means "little burned ones." A couple of the charred baguette slices were spread with a peasant's pâté of chopped chicken livers, which had a claylike texture and an intense earthy flavor. Atop the other slices, cannellini beans and grape tomatoes knocked about like marbles.
Vongsaly uses house-made pasta in every dish except the spaghetti. His fresh sheet pasta is gently elastic, smooth and yielding. The dried strands are less pliant and supple. Spaghetti dotted with halved grape tomatoes was lovely to look at, but a cloudy puddle of starchy water had pooled in the bottom of the bowl. Likewise, spaghetti with seafood waded in a soupy olive-oil-and-garlic sauce. The dish featured calamari, clams and mussels withering in their shells and veined shrimp barely visible to the naked eye. But we loved the agnolotti, a crescent-shaped filled pasta from Piedmont. Although the word means "priests' caps," the pasta's upturned corners call to mind the Flying Nun's aerodynamic headdress. Agnolotti is traditionally stuffed with meat, but Vongsaly uses spinach and ricotta and finishes the dish with sage-scented browned butter.
I Fratellini's antipasto and pasta selections are painstakingly authentic, but its entrée list seems designed to appeal to Americans. The most popular meats in Italy are veal, lamb and pork, including the animals' organs. Italians also enjoy rabbit and game, such as pheasant and wild boar. Except for veal, these meats were missing from I Fratellini's menu when we visited. Of course, lamb, veal and game are expensive, and nothing on the menu is priced above a modest $17. But offal, pork and butcher's cuts of other meats are affordable, and we'd like to see the chef include them.
Swordfish, though it's a Sicilian specialty, is prepared here in the style of the north, with browned butter and sage. Vongsaly punches up the fish's vaguely smoky flavor with capers, sautéed spinach and crisp slivers of garlic. It's served with Tuscan potata fritta, ovoid morsels made by ricing potatoes, rolling the potato pulp in bread crumbs and then sautéing the balls in olive oil. A loin of veal in natural juices did not fare as well. It was cooked past medium, with no trace of a pink center, leaving the meat dry and tough. Pan-seared salmon was prepared with the utmost simplicity, using only sea salt, cracked pepper and a hot pan to form a frangible crust. With a spritz of lemon at the table, the fish couldn't have been better.
Our young, exceptionally capable waiter wisely did not give us a chance to decline dessert. On all three visits, he waved another handsome black folder under our noses before we could fib that we couldn't possibly -- well, you know the line. I Fratellini's confections are purchased from Marcia Sindel, of La Dolce Via. Bar Italia customers will recognize Sindel's signature domed tortas. The two we tried, to our disappointment, had been allowed to dry out. Her flourless chocolate-and-hazelnut torta was much fresher. It's a flat cake with bittersweet notes and a fudgy density. The house-made panna cotta ("cooked cream") is a firm custardlike dessert that has deposed crème brûlée on many New York menus. I Fratellini's pleasantly tart version is flecked with vanilla bean and drizzled with syrupy-sweet raspberry coulis. It was a delight, but the coconut chiffon cake, swaddled in whipped cream and a fleecy blanket of toasted coconut, was a truly exquisite indulgence -- just like I Fratellini.